Travelling Hopefully

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11 March

 

At 9.30am, we were off. Nineteen people had signed up to come to Jordan with me. Thirteen of us were collected from my house by a coach which took us to Heathrow Terminal 5. A representative from the travel company met us at the terminal, and he and I took people’s passports to the group check in desk to obtain boarding passes. Six of the others, who had made their own way to the airport, turned up soon later to be processed. Last to arrive, through no fault of her own, was Sonja, travelling from Switzerland. 

 

The flight took around five hours and was uneventful. The food was even edible. I gained two small bottles of red wine, which I plan to use for Eucharists during the trip. I talked to fellow passengers and watched a ‘Doctor Who’ episode on my iPhone.

 

At Amman, we were met by another company rep who took our passports. He obtained our visas whilst we collected our luggage. I also bought a Jordanian sim card. I think it’s essential that a group leader should be able to contact others, and I’d rather pay local rates than extortionate overseas rates. 

 

And almost immediately I was speaking to Mohamed, our local guide, on my iPhone. He wouldn’t join us until the next morning, so we agreed starting time and a few details before ending the call.

 

It was a 40 minute ride in a rather large and posh coach to our rather large and posh hotel. A sandwich dinner and a bottle of water was waiting for each of us on the coach. As it was midnight Jordanian time (two hours ahead of UK time), I unpacked what I had to and went to bed.

 

12 March

 

 The breakfast buffet offered just about anything you could have asked for, although some of the meat was hard to identify. But the coffee was dark and strong, which was what I needed. 

 

We met Mohamed and boarded the coach at 10.30am. And immediately came across the jam which is Amman traffic. We crawled over to our first stop, the Citadel. 

 

The Citadel has been a site of habitation since Neolithic times, although much of the build occurred under the Romans. We walked enjoyed views over the city as we walked up to the Temple of Hercules. A statue of Hercules, estimated to have been over 13 metres tall, used to stand nearby. A hand and an elbow rest on the grass nearby.

 

I was distracted by some birds eating caterpillars, which later research revealed to be Crested larks. Their song followed us around the site, when not drowned out by prayers from nearby mosques.

 

We went on to the Umayyad Palace, built around 661 AD. Lovely carvings decorated the stonework  inside and out. On the other side were ruins of habitations. A kestrel hovered nearby.

 

Our next stop was a brief visit to the Roman theatre. Mohamed stood in the exact centre of the orchestra area to demonstrate how the acoustics would carry sound up into the stands.

 

Lunch was one of those wonderful mixtures of different types of salad and dips, bread, and grilled meat. I had a small cup of Turkish coffee afterwards. Once back at the coach, a moment of panic. Two of our number were missing. Mohamed and I split up, he going to the entrance area to look for the two, whereas I went back to the restaurant and into the ladies’ toilet. And there they were. One of them had been unable to unlock her stall door, and her friend had had quite a time trying to convince one of the (non English speaking!) waiters to come in and free her.

 

Sadly, due to various factors, we were an hour late for our visit to the Anglican Church of the Redeemer. The priest still met with us, and we were all charmed by his manner and his stories. The windows were made from his own designs, and brought colour to the interior. He had studied for his Master’s degree at the same theological college in which I’d been trained.

 

We were treated to a hot drink and local cakes, after which we made our way back through heavy traffic to our hotel. I had a glass of very nice Jordanian red wine before going in to dinner. 

 

 

13 March

 

We left the hotel at 8am for a journey north, near to the border of Syria and Israel. An hour later, we arrived at the Roman city of Jerash. 

 

One guide book had described the remains in glowing terms as ‘the best in the Middle East, perhaps the world’. Well, they certainly were impressive. We walked under a gate built for the visit of Hadrian, visited the hippodrome, and then walked to the city proper. Columns led to a very well preserved (well, somewhat rebuilt) road with the remains of shops and churches on either side. Also well preserved were temples dedicated to Zeus and Artemis, along with two theatres and baths. Spring flowers and green grass carpeted the site. 

 

We had two and a half hours to visit, which was just enough at a push. After returning to our coach, we drove for around an hour to Gadara. This had been another Roman settlement, and possibly the place at which Jesus drove demons out of a man and into a herd of pigs. We sat outside for our lunch, enjoying views into the valley and over to the Sea of Galilee. Only a few years ago I was in a coach driving down from the Golan Heights, looking across the valley at Jordan. Now I was in Jordan, and I could look across the valley at that very road.

 

After lunch, we walked down to another viewpoint, past a couple of horses, to look again into the valley. We passed the Roman road, and along a set of remains of shops and into a rebuilt theatre. 

 

By this time, we’d done quite a bit of walking, so it was good to board the coach for an hour’s drive. We finished up at Pella. The site was closed, but that didn’t matter. Our guide took us to a cafe which overlooked the site, and we had drinks whilst the sun slowly set. Shepherds were bringing their flocks off the hills, riding donkeys past the remains of temples and churches. 

 

We arrived at our Dead Sea hotel after dark. But the bar area was lovely and bright…

 

 

14 March

 

The group agreed to another 8am departure, with the idea of returning early enough in the afternoon to go for a bob in the Dead Sea. Overnight, the wind had picked up, and as we drove to the Jordan River, rain began to fall. I pulled my waterproofs out of my case, and only then realised that I’d picked up the wrong ones. Instead of packing a waterproof coat, I’d packed my waterproof trousers! So I wore them over my shoulders, spreading the legs across my chest and arms.

 

The walk to Jesus’ baptismal spot was under cover, no doubt intended to shield people more from the sun than from the rain. The spot at which Jesus was said to have been baptised is now a short distance from the river, as the Jordan has changed course over the last 2000 years. The water left in the pool looked rather murky, so none of us were tempted to use it.

 

An Orthodox church stood near the river itself. We walked to the platform. I’d seen the Jordanian side from the Israeli just a couple of years ago, so I was expecting a nice shelter near the river where people could renew their baptismal vows. However, heavy rain had caused flooding, and the structure had been badly damaged. We couldn’t even reach the water.

 

I quickly conferred with the other two Anglican clergy in the group. We held a short service near the river, and blessed the water in our water bottles. Then we each stood a short distance from the main group, and people could come up to one of us to renew their baptismal vows. I used my water to draw the sign of a cross on a person’s forehead.

 

The sun began to emerge as we returned to the bus, so we were hopeful for our next site. But as the bus climbed up to Mount Nebo, we entered the clouds. The rain became quite heavy as we hurried up to the museum. Once we were all inside, Mohamed explained the area and the mosaic in the local church. We waited for a short while, until the rain had eased off, before walking over to the church.

 

The church was originally built in the 4th century. Recently a modern structure has been built over the ruins and the mosaics. The latter were beautiful, particularly one depicting various African animals. African animals had been brought over for the royal court, but the giraffe had died along the way. So the mosaic artist listened to descriptions of the giraffe, and produced a spotted camel.

 

The weather cleared for a few minutes, allowing us to see the views from the mountain. We made it back to the bus just as the rain started up again.

 

A number of mosaic workshops are to be found in the area. We visited one which provides employment to disabled people. After a demonstration of how mosaics are made, we left the workshop to visit the large store. I was impressed by their work, and the high prices. 

 

We continued our rather British type holiday by eating our sandwich lunch on the bus. We had hoped to enjoy an outdoor picnic! 

 

The weather was better back at the hotel. I’d exchanged emails with the hotel about their facilities, and they had advised me that they had a private beach with changing rooms and showers. A number of us set out to catch the shuttle to the beach. The bus the hotel usually uses had broken down, so a car was employed. 

 

The changing rooms turned out to be small huts, and the shower was outdoors. In addition, due to the weather conditions, swimming was prohibited. Well, none of this was going to phase a Brit. We’re used to cold and windy seasides. Most of the group only paddled in the water, but a few laid down in the waves. 

 

At 5pm we met up for a Eucharist. I had set it up outdoors, near the hotel swimming pools, but rain began to fall just before we were due to start. So we went inside the nearby children’s play room and used the seats and cushions inside. It was one of the more unique settings in which I’ve presided over a Eucharist, I have to say. 

 

Afterwards, I had time for some beer and I wrote postcards. After dinner, I went to my room to work on photos. 

 

15 March

 

Another 8am departure. The wind had picked up again overnight, and we had cloud cover to start with, but no rain. We headed up into the mountains, away from the Dead Sea, on winding roads which passed dry landscape. 

 

Our first stop was at Machaerus, one of King Herod’s fortresses. It was here that John the Baptist was beheaded. Mohamed had planned an hour’s stop so that people could climb up the pathway to the top. However, the biting wind, the steep path, and the fact that there would be very little to see at the top made us all decline. We admired the scenery, pointing out to each other the caves which dotted the hillsides, before continuing our journey through the mountains.

 

Our next viewpoint overlooked the Arnon Valley. A small shop sold hot drinks, and various small items were displayed on the walls with hopes that tourists would make some purchases. I was tempted by some fossils, but not the prices. The toilet facilities were very clean, quite surprisingly for such a spot.

 

I was approached by Mohamed on behalf of another tourist group. Their bus had developed a fault, and they’d already been waiting at the viewpoint for an hour hoping that the driver could fix it. Could the twenty four of them please catch a lift with us to Kerak? Their guide started trying to explain in broken English, but when I found out that the group was mostly Swiss (one German), I switched to German and our discussions proceeded more smoothly. Of course they could come with us. I made it clear that our group didn’t expect anything from them, but if they wanted to give some money to the driver, that would be kind. 

 

Our large bus easily swallowed the extra passengers, although it made counting heads a bit more challenging. We went down the road to Kerak, and admired views of the Crusader castle from a car park before going in to a local hotel for a buffet lunch. The Swiss group were in a hurry, as they had a two hour hike booked at a nearby nature reserve. Their bus managed to make it down the mountain and collected them from the hotel after they’d eaten lunch.

 

We headed over to the local Crusader castle. The castle was originally built in 1142, and the amount which remains is impressive. The site featured in the film ‘The Kingdom of Heaven’, which I did see in 2005 but I can’t remember much about it.

 

We entered the lower level tunnels and walked near the walls. The castle takes advantage of its site on a hill, with long drop offs on most sides. The views over the nearby countryside were lovely, particularly as we were in a fertile area and the recent rains had brought out grass and flowers.

 

Afterwards we settled into our long drive to Aqaba, taking a half hour comfort break in a large shop and cafe area. I was tempted by a lovely antique box, but not at the price wanted for it. Same for the intricately painted ostrich eggs. I can see why they cost around £450, but I have further holidays to pay for!

 

 

 

16 March

 

My fellow passengers were thrilled to hear that we wouldn’t be leaving the hotel until 9.45am. I think everyone enjoyed the lie in, and many took breakfast outside near the pool.

 

It was only a short drive to a hotel complex which led to a beach and to a small pier. We boarded a small boat, which took us along the shore of the Red Sea. Glass on the bottom of the boat allowed us to view a shipwreck, a sunken plane (deliberately submerged to provide interest for divers), and coral reefs. Several of our party went for a swim, but found the water slick with diesel fuel and little to see under water. A helicopter flew up and hovered nearby, sending spray into the air as it filled a large water bucket.

 

After a couple of hours, we disembarked, and went back to the hotel to collect one person and to let off two others. Our group went to a fish restaurant, then on a short walking tour of the city. A very annoying teenager followed us. He thought it was amusing to take a drag on his cigarette, then blow the smoke into someone’s face. When he did it to me, I thumped him on the shoulder, pointed a finger in his face, and shouted, ‘Don’t do that to me again!’ So he picked on others instead.

 

We finished at a very small and rather disappointing souk. A number of parrots were crammed in small cages, I suppose to add colour, and I did my best not to look too closely. Sheep carcasses, with the heads still attached, hung outside butchers’ shops. We did enjoy watching how the patterns were created for sand filled bottles, and a visit to a spice shop, at which the owner offered us samples.

 

Our coach pulled up outside the ruins of ‘old Aqaba’. There was very little to see, so we merely admired from inside the bus before heading off.

 

The rest of the afternoon was spent relaxing at the hotel. We had drinks whilst sitting by the pool. The staff of the hotel were very attentive, and we had a lovely afternoon.

 

 

 

17 March

 

A 9am start. We drove into Wadi Rum, stopping briefly at what had been the train station to see two old locomotives. At the visitors’ centre, we hired 4x4 trucks for a driving tour into the desert. Most of us clambered up to sit in the open area of the truck bed, with the others sitting inside. 

 

Our first stop offered the opportunity to climb up the side of a hill to take in the views. A few brave travellers did so, whereas the rest of us decided to simply watch and enjoy the views from where we stood. The fine sand washed up around wind-carved rock mounds. The sun came and went, and in the wind it was rather chilly. Coats and fleeces were very welcome.

 

I had mentioned to Mohamed that I’d like to do a Bible reading and a prayer. Our second stop was away from the other visitors, and the trucks were pulled around so we could remain on board for the short service. I’d just read out Luke’s account of Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness, and I was trying to do a short talk about it, when a man rode past on a camel. I realised that people were trying to take photos instead of listening to me (although they insisted they were doing both at the same time), so I called a halt to my homily and we all took photos. Then I finished up my words of wisdom, prayed, and we set off again.

 

We stopped briefly at a site full of people and camels. Then we moved on to a canyon with views down to the valley below. Lizards scurried around the rocks, and small birds fluttered past. Mohamed suggested that we spent several minutes in silence. The sound of wind and bird song was all we heard. Well, that and the muffled sound of my camera shutter, as I stalked wildlife with my long lens. Several people sang a verse of  ‘How Great Thou Art’ at the end, and their sounds echoed beautifully between the cliffs.

 

Our last stop was at a spring supposedly used by Lawrence of Arabia. We entered a Bedouin tent for a cup of herbal tea. Then we headed out, enjoying lunch at a campsite.

 

Our intention had been to visit Little Petra before going on to our hotel. A rest stop at a cafe and shop was part of the plan. Just as we were approaching our rest stop, an alarm went off in our bus. The driver managed to take us the last little way to the cafe, where our 30 minute break became extended. A valve had given way on the air pressure system in the bus. Our driver opened up the engine area and dumped a bucket full of spare parts on the ground to look for something with which to fix it. We sat outside on the terrace area, watching a camel which grazed in the central reservation of the highway, and a shepherds with a mixed flock of sheep and goats.

 

Other coaches came and went. The driver of one was able to provide our driver with what he needed. And, in a nice bit of karma, the driver who assisted us was the driver of the coach load of Swiss people we’d rescued just a few days ago! 

 

We headed to our hotel, as it was too late to enter Little Petra. Our hotel is set high in the hills near Petra, and we admired the sunset from the hotel’s terrace before going to our rooms. Our rooms all have balconies overlooking the view. And it’s also rather cold. We all had to put on extra layers and turn the heating on in our rooms!

 

 

 

18 March

 

Bad news. A cruise ship had pulled into Aqaba and no doubt a large number of passengers would plan to visit Petra. So we left the hotel at 8am to try to enter the site before the large surge in numbers.

 

My first thought, as we walked down the path, with horses and horse drawn carriages passing on a separate area to our left, was that I wished I’d visited Petra twenty years ago. This thought only grew as we reached the canyon, as the path was concreted under foot and we had to move out of the way of the fast travelling carriages. The site has been altered to handle the huge influx of tourists, which is understandable, but which also means one feels less like an adventurer and more like one of a horde visiting a tourist attraction.

 

As we walked along the canyon (called a ‘siq’ in Arabic), Mohamed pointed out various carvings in the tall sandstone sides. Many people had dressed warmly, but even in the siq, the temperatures had started to rise.

 

We all paused at the last section, which gives way to the first sight of the Treasury (as made famous in the movie ‘Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade’). We emerged into bedlam. Crowds of people jostling for photos, camel handlers calling out with offers of rides (or just to pose on a camel in front of the Treasury). Small boys trying to sell postcards. Stalls selling drinks and souvenirs. 

 

Fortunately, all this fell away once we walked further into the site. The area opened up, which allowed people to spread out more. Plus, it appeared that a lot of visitors only viewed the Treasury, then turned around to walk back up the siq. 

 

The cliffs are covered with caves and carved tombs. Donkeys and camels abounded, and their handlers did their best to convince people to book a ride. This is all unregulated, and there are stories of people falling off and injuring themselves. I also worried about the condition of some of the animals, particularly the horses pulling the carriages.

 

We walked past the theatre and down to a set of gates. By now, it was noon, and we found some shade to eat our packed lunches. (I had been warned by previous travellers not to eat at the restaurants on site, as many a person had become sick afterwards.) I left the group to take my own time heading back up again. I took photos and bought some fossils.

 

Just after 3pm I was back at the entrance. I went for a drink with a couple of members from the group before we caught our coach ride back to the hotel.

 

I had time to set up for the Eucharist. My room had a large terrace, so people brought chairs and we sat outside. The nearby mountains made a nice backdrop. The afternoon was warm enough that people only needed fleece to feel comfortable.

 

After drinks and dinner, I finished my packing and went to bed at 8.30pm. After about half an hour, I managed to fall asleep.

 

 

 

 

19 March

 

The alarm went off at 1am. Bags were to be outside the room by 1.15am, and at 2am we set off in our coach for the three hour drive to Amman airport. I gave the driver and Mohamed their tips before doing my best to doze in my seat.

 

We made good time, arriving at the airport around 4.40pm. We said our goodbyes to Mohamed and our driver. Then we went inside, and queued up for the check in desk. All went well, and we were through immigration and security with plenty of time to obtain some caffeine.

 

The plane took off at 8.10am, and we landed at Heathrow at 11.30am (GMT). Many hugs and goodbyes were given as people who were not on the coach to Northampton made their goodbyes. Our coach was ready for us, and we had a good journey back to Northampton. More hugs and goodbyes, and then I entered my house for a long bout of unpacking! Trip over. The group had signed a postcard thanking me for the trip, and I placed this on display in my kitchen.

 

No photos from today. I was far too tired to even think of taking any!

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